Beat the Applicant Tracking System: How to Use Keywords to Get Your Resume Seen

ATSYou’re in a job search routine where you submit several online applications daily – one after the other – yet you have not heard back from anyone. You’re starting to feel like your applications are being sucked into a black hole. Bad news: this feeling can actually be a reality – and it’s called an applicant tracking system (ATS).

In our Google-reliant world, the ATS has dominated the job search, because it simplifies hiring like Yelp simplifies restaurant-selection. Hiring managers type in what they want, and the ATS screens out candidates who do not have the required skills and reveals the “perfect candidate.” Sounds pretty appealing, right? According to Recruiting Daily, 75 percent of large companies use an ATS. However, like any technology, and ATS does have its downside – qualified candidates can be overlooked if they don’t have the right information on their resume.

This naturally leads to the question on every job seeker’s mind – ‘I know I’m a qualified candidate, but how can I ensure my resume get past the ATS and into the hiring manager’s hands?’

The answer: Keywords

An ATS is the obstacle between the job seeker and the hiring manager. They scan applications by using keywords selected by hiring managers and then eliminating applications that lack those keywords. They leave only the ones that seemingly fit the requirements for the hiring manager to review and determine who to interview.

(This is why we always tell job seekers to tailor their experience and skills appropriately to the position – generic resumes almost always get pigeon-holed by an ATS!)

Keywords can be anything from a specific computer program, educational background or general experience. But there can be many ways to write about a skill or communicate an experience – how do you know you’re using the right keywords?

It doesn’t take a mind-reader to determine which keywords an ATS is looking for; hiring managers usually just tell you what they are via the job description! For example, let’s say you’re applying to a payroll position, and the job requirement mentions Microsoft Excel knowledge, the ability to multi-task and attention to detail. In your resume, you would highlight these specific three things to have a better shot at having your resume seen by the hiring manager.

Every job description is different, and it’s up to you to carefully scan each one, pick out its unique keywords and plug them into your resume. But before you start sprinkling keywords throughout your resume, remember…

  • Only include keywords in a place that makes sense and flows with the rest of your resume. You don’t want to compromise readability because you jammed in as many keywords possible. Why? If it is parsed out by the ATS, and your resume looks like a keyword mess to the hiring manager, you probably won’t earn an interview.
  • Do not lie about your experience and skills for the sake of including keywords. Candidates who lie on their resumes will get caught and their candidacy will abruptly end.

Including keywords on your resume only increases the change of your resume being selected by the ATS – it does not guarantee you a job. At the end of the day, the best candidate will get hired – it could be you, but it could be someone else – but if you take the extra steps, like including keywords, you have a better shot at shining as a qualified candidate.

Have any additional tips or insights? Leave us a comment!

11 thoughts on “Beat the Applicant Tracking System: How to Use Keywords to Get Your Resume Seen

    • Hi Charlotte!

      That depends on the position. The best way to determine what they are is to study each job description, pinpoint the language used in key responsibilities/requirements and integrate that language into your resume. Hope that clarification helps!

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I have been seeking employment for a little over three months now, and apply for jobs that I know I am qualified to perform and mostly tailor my resume. I do usually get an automated confirmation afterwards but nothing after that. I find this article extremely helpful and will continue to keep an eye on those key words! Wish me luck.

    • Hi Shawn!

      That varies from job-to-job and company-to-company, but you can figure them out by carefully reading a job description. There are many different ways to describe one responsibility, so tailor your experience to the language the job description uses. Hope that helps!

  2. I am a new MBA graduate looking to gain employment in H.R. I have been a social service employee (11 years) and administrative secretary (medical & business) for 20 years. How do I show my experience and employment longevity in combination to my recent academic accomplishment in my resume?

    • Hi Michelle!

      Definitely add your new degree to your resume! I would put it below your work experience.
      It seems like you have great work history! However, I would only include experience relevant to the jobs you’re applying to. Perhaps there was an aspect of your administrative and social services positions that helped prepare you for a future HR role – highlight that experience and parse out the rest.

      Hope that helps!

  3. How do I emphasize my desire for an HR position if I have an MBA and Masters in Human Resource Management but no experience in HR. I worked for the same company for 19 years in Account Management, AR, Client Relations Analyst and Billing specialist?

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